TALKING RIGHT: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax- Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show
by Geoffrey Nunberg
PublicAffairs $26, 272 pages
At the close of 2005, the Democratic party unveiled its new slogan for the midterm 2006 elections: "Together, America can do better." Seen by the press for what it was - a piecemeal catchphrase hastily slapped together by a committee of strategists - the slogan, unsurprisingly, flopped. This and other rhetorical debacles led Geoffrey Nunberg to wonder, "Are the Democrats simply tone deaf?"
To answer the question, Nunberg, a linguistics professor at Stanford University, has written a well researched analysis of how conservatives have secured their position on the American political stage by monopolising American political discourse. As Nunberg explains, "the right's most notable linguistic achievement isn't its skill in coining distracting catchphrases, but its success in capturing the language of everyday political discussion." Indeed, Nunberg's view that political opinions are often crystallised through everyday discussion is convincing.
The word "liberal", he explains, carries with it all sorts of baggage: political, geographical, sexual and cultural. Used during the progressive 1960s and 1970s to refer to socially conscious proponents of equal- rights legislation, affirmative action and civil reforms, for many conservatives the word "liberal" now conjures up images of decadent, anti-American, pinot grigio-sipping hippies. Still, as Nunberg writes, the most disturbing aspect of the right's manipulation of terms such as values, liberalism, bias and elite is not their partisan manipulation. Instead, the concern is that this right- wing manipulation has not "set off many alarm bells" among liberals. Though these shifts in meaning have occurred in ways that can benefit only the Republican party, disturbingly, Democrats and their ilk haven't seemed to notice the trend.
It is a sign of Republican dominance that the core vocabulary of conservatives has become the norm within its own circles and also in broader conversation about American politics. Democrats have responded to this linguistic onslaught by attempting to reclaim words in their dictionary meaning - they ignore the narrative they have become embedded in. In 2004, for example, John Kerry lashed out at Bush's friends in the corporate world, labelling them anti- patriotic "Benedict Arnold CEOs". It was a brave attempt at recapturing the typically Republican notion of patriotism for the Democratic side, but conservatives easily shrugged off the charge. "A well-crafted slogan or catchphrase can work magic on its own. But the words of the deep vocabulary of politics are inseparable from the stories that give them their meanings," Nunberg admonishes.
Talking Right actually reads as a rallying call for the Democrats and their army of dormant linguistic analysts. While Nunberg is not entitled to impartiality here, his account of the linguistic clash is amply substantiated and compellingly written. It also comes at a propitious time for liberals. American confidence in its government is at its lowest levels in years in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, clashes over prescription drugs, controversy over the proposed privatisation of Social Security and the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. One could certainly argue that the time is right for a Democratic victory in the upcoming presidential election. Nonetheless, Nunberg believes the battle in 2008 will be primarily a rhetorical one. Democrats, he writes, must begin the charge by taking back the language of American political discourse and, more importantly, by reclaiming the populist narrative that the Republicans have used so successfully to unite the American people under their banner.